Five Minutes to Launch: Leaving for a year on sMars  

The first step to a successful Mars simulation is not crashing on the way up the volcano.

It’s 2:09 PM Hawaii Time on August 28th, 2015. A white cargo van trundled its way over red-gray lava field trying not to break an axle. The one-year mission to simulated Mars was slated to start in 51 minutes. Inside the van, the crew of the 4th Hawaiian Space Exploration and Analog Simulation (HI-SEAS) was already multitasking like crazy. We cradled scientific equipment, musical instruments and laptops in our arms while clinging to our seats and trying to enjoy a last look at Earth before reaching our destination: a 1000 square-foot dome on the north side of Mauna Loa.

This white dome will be our home for the next 365 days. Inside the habitat, made to look as Mars-like as possible, we will perform a series of NASA-funded experiments that hopefully, someday, will culminate in humans making our way to the fourth planet from the Sun. During our mission, the fourth of its kind at the HI-SEAS facility, we never actually leave Earth. We will leave the dome itself only a few times a week, and then, only in space suits. On the rocky, unforgiving hillside we planned to live and work in near-isolation. All communication with the outside world will take place with the same 20-minute delay that the Martian rovers often have with the crews controlling them back on Earth.

That is, it will, just as soon as we make it up the mountainside.IMG_2766

As they have been all week, the camera and radio crews were gamely keeping pace behind us. For a long-time journalist, and near-as-long-a-time scientist, the sudden shift in perspective is somewhat dizzying. I should be on the other side of the mic, of the camera. Of the world, really. In a lab somewhere, or in a hospital. My white coat and leather doctor bag are almost within reach, packed next to hiking boots and trekking poles.  Over the last week, I’ve swapped air conditioned corridors for lectures on spacesuit maintenance and 9-mile geology hikes through the wilderness. On one of these treks we learned about the different types of lava in the area around the dome, including the sharp black type we were – very slowly – driving over just then. Aa is the name of the rock. “AAAAAAAHHH!” is the sound that you make when trying to traverse it.

The bulk of the van swayed sharply to the left. Right on cue, the crew said, “AAAAHHHHH!” and began laughing. After a few moments, the quiet descended again, and stuck. The rubber of the tires ground painfully against the iron-laden ground. We surged forward.

What do you say during your last few minutes “on Earth”? The door of the dome will close. When it does, until August 28th, 2016, we’ll lay down our iphones. We’ll pick up telescopes and tweezers; try to conserve power and water; rehydrate food. Between making the science happen, cleaning house (dome) and shooting outreach videos, we’ll all have more to do than can be done in a year. Yet, I somehow fear not being able to fill all those minutes of time.


This is, of course, thoroughly irrational. I’ve seen our schedule. It’s enough to give a posse of hard-core overachievers a migraine that lasts for months. Also, as a veteran of space simulation, I have insider information. Being locked in a can with folks who know more than a few goofy space jokes passes the time like nobody’s business. Still, at 7000 feet, with nearly 2000 left to go, it felt as though time and space were stretching themselves out. Dilating, as the pupil of an eye gazing into a dark room. Trying to gather in all the light. Trying to see everything that could be seen.


Goodbye to green – that is, until we grow some ourselves inside the dome. Carmel, the mission commander, sitting a few seat ahead of me in the van, has big plans to grow an indoor garden of epic proportions. All it’s going to take is some tubes, some water, a handful of seeds and some fish (poop is plant food). Cyprien, the french astrobiologist, has similar plans. His little garden is already taking root in clear plastic tubes, which he worries over like a father. As for me, I have a bunch of tools, pills and techniques I’m praying not to use. May they gather dust as my crew remain safe and healthy over the next year.


We had a few minutes more to the top. I took a photo of the alien landscape and sent it to my husband. He responded with a picture of our cat. Which is…pretty much his response to everything.


We’ve been asked non-stop what we’re going to miss about Earth. Our loved ones, naturally, is the answer, followed by what you would expect: running, swimming, forests. Rain falling on our faces. Sun warming our skin. Wind – the sound and the feeling of it – just about anywhere. My typical answer is that I will miss unanticipated chaos: that thing that happens when you put the people of Earth together at random and stir. I’ll miss passing people on my bike at high speed and seeing their surprise. I’ll miss hearing glass shatter loudly in restaurants, and the sighs of sympathy that follow. I’ll miss street musicians. A few days before flying to Hawaii, I stood on a sidewalk in Burbank, California, after having dinner with friends, and listened to a man play “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” on an electrified classical guitar. There are no street musicians on sMars. The only music there is what we bring with us, and what we manage to make with the few instruments we’re carrying in now.


For as much as I will miss the sudden randomness of life on Earth by being in a Mars simulation, what I may miss even more, strangely enough, is mundanity. Waving to the neighbors. Watering the garden. Nights on the porch under a bower laden with treefrogs. Many people, on occasion, get into vessel and make their way somewhere wacky. Pictures of the cats appearing at random intervals during the day: that’s the stuff of life.


The van suddenly rounds the corner onto the flat plain where the dome was planted in 2013.  Improvements have been made over the previous 3 missions, but we’re promised that, as surely as the Sun rises and sets, even on Mars, things will break.

IMG_1429 3

Things will break. We will not. How I know that I just can’t say. I think it’s because we prefer to laugh more than we like just about anything else. Even science. Even being astronauts for a year during NASA’s longest planned Mars simulation. More than cat pictures, more than the internet, even. Where we’re going we’ll take our cameras to record things, our instruments to affect changes in the environment, and our humor, to keep the whole thing hanging together.


In a few moments, in matching red polo shirts, the crew will pile out of the car. We’ll make our way to the front door. That part of the path has been cleared of the “AAAAAHHHHH!” The rest of the world, our tiny world, has been left for us to find. Broken. Unbroken. In a tangled, fantastic disarray. We made it this far. I can’t see us not going forward, together, unto whatever waits beyond the horizon.

IMG_1425 2

See you there.


Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming

Thomas Lux, 1946

It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches

and saloons are filled with decent humans.

A mother wants to feed her daughter,

fathers to buy their children things that break.

People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.

We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;

we dislike injustice and cancer,

and are not unaware of our terrible errors.

A man wants to love his wife.

His wife wants him to carry something.

We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.

Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.

There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,

in which floats a…

Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.

It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,

Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,

or they don’t,

or they like to fill a blue plastic pool

in the back yard with a hose

and watch their children splash.

Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.

And if a long train of cattle cars passes

along West Ridge

it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.

The unbroken world is coming,

(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,

there were clouds, there was dust,

I heard it in the streets, I heard it

announced by loudhailers

mounted on trucks.


92 thoughts on “Five Minutes to Launch: Leaving for a year on sMars  

  1. I’m always inspired by people’s willingness to make personal sacrifices like spending a year away from their loved ones for the benefit of everyone. Good luck on your mission!

    1. Thank you, Brian. Braving daily life in the world can be heroic. In many ways, we’re just ordinary people…ordinary people in a dome. With a LOT of science going on. 🙂

  2. This is very exciting! I love that you are doing this. I may not be around to see mankind living on Mars but hope my ‘grands’ will love the whole space program. Yesterday we went to a nearby orchard to pick Honey Crisp apples. It is an annual event that we all love and we’ve been able to do it over the years as we moved from California to Texas to Illinois. How will astronauts cope with not participating in family traditions? That would be hard for me. At least you can see pictures and get emails from family and friends. I’ll be following you over the next year and include you in my prayers. Candace

  3. Wow. Good luck to you. I only found out about the project this morning. We look forward to your updates. Your conviction and bravery is admired. We’ll try keeping things out here going as best we can for you all. Take care.

  4. Best of luck on you and your traveling mates! Look forward to your updates and progress. I must admit I am a bit jealous of you, what you are doing is something I always dreamed about. Once again good luck and thank you for advancing human space travel. You are all true pioneers!


    1. Jason: This mission (HI-SEAS) has been funded by NASA for 3 more years BEYOND our mission. Get your space-face on and get in the game, sir. Space awaits.

  5. Your journey has captivated the imagination of my 7-year old son, Griffin–mine too! We are excited to hear more about your brave adventure. Hugs!

      1. Griffin says Saturn is his favorite because of the sparkly rings. He would like to ask you some more questions from time to time if that’s ok. Enjoy getting settled in….

        1. Hey, good answer, Griffin. Did you know that those rings, up close, look like a lot of floating rocks and ice. A spacecraft can fly through those rings! Maybe someday he will, too.

          Please send questions. Will answer as time allows 🙂

  6. One thing I’ve been wondering, but haven’t seen in articles about this or similar experiments – how much weight and volume was each person allowed for personal stuff like books, music, &c? Besides well-loaded Kindles (or equivalent) and MP3 players, what sort of things did y’all take with you?

    1. We are allowed as much communication as the ISS – email, no active internet. The delay each way for email, text, voice and video is 20 minutes.

    1. Yes, James, to a certain extent. There are things that need to get done daily, but, being so far from Earth, we are largely on our own to set up schedules.

  7. I am a Jewish journalist in Montreal Canada writing a story for the Jewish Chornicle in London UK on Sheyna Gifford. Could she email me a quote on what it feels like for her as a member of the Jewish community to this amazing thing. I have already read her quotes on a Jewish Telegraphic Agency story but the Chronicle would like a sentence or two just for itself…

    Thank you,

    David Lazarus

  8. Best of luck but some history I was there when we launched the mercury seven astronauts (Cocoa Beach) you are quite a pioneer please keep us posted.

  9. Totally “out of this world”! – You guys are so incredibly amazing, I can’t find the appropriate words…. Hope there are not going to be any unsolvable technical difficulties and, I wish you all the best of luck.. May the food supplies prosper….. Cheers from Outback Australia (Rolf).

  10. Hey! How are the martians doing? Just wrote this to let you know that I got a lot of my classmates to read and hopefully subscribe to your blog! II hope these bunch of crazies may get some inspiration from you guys just like I did, as we have our boards nearing, this would be a vital opportunity for all of us to learn from you and strive for achieving our goals! Keep us updated, post lots of pictures.


  11. Dear Shey and rest of crew,

    Good luck in your mission! You are an inspiration, when I was a teenager I was a loyal follower of Apollo Missions. It is great to see young people involved in science and with the courage of looking beyond earth boundaries. I lived in Arizona and enjoyed countless sunsets. All the best and enjoy your Russian lessons!

    Guaruja – Brazil

  12. Good Luck…I am sending this from my computer class at EmpowerTech (Empowering and educating peop0le with disabilities) in Los Angeles, California.

  13. Sounds great, good luck! I am writing to you from my computer class at EmpowerTech, (Empowering and educating people with disabilities) in Los Angeles, California.

  14. How do you account for the ever present ability to step out of the project and on to solid ground, as opposed to being scores of miles distant from earth when the first Mars sailors depart? This seems a hard to calculate psychological gulf in the experiment.

    I look forward to following the journey. Aloha, Tom

    1. You’re right, Tom, which is why we are here. Many of our experiments are about quantifying and qualifying that interface between the physical and psychological gulf. Also, our ability to just step out is, at least experimentally limited. We would only step outside without a space suit on in a major emergency. The thoughts of going out without one on is…unappealing at best.

      1. Mahalo Shey. I thought the one year project timing was to test the effect of the travel TO Mars, as opposed to the actual domicile on the planet, my apologies.

        Aloha, Tom

  15. As a psychologist who does couple and family therapy, I am fascinated with the human and emotional stakes of your sMars ‘voyage’. It will be interesting to explore the mix of personality and interpersonal styles which could make up the ‘winning conditions’ for a successful team experience. Also, the little, mundane touches of home that will likely help preserve your sanity!—movies, exercise, joking around, music, celebrations and rites and ritual.

    Finally, thank you all for being a part of this New Frontier which aims at us becoming a space-faring species:

    “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in a cradle forever”. ~Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

  16. I live in a small community named Lamar, near Rockport, TX ,and they call us LaMartians!
    Wishing you all the best in the coming year. I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say about your adventures.

  17. Good luck, and God speed. What you do during this experiment, will be of great value to those who travel to Mars later.

  18. My name is Diane. I attend Empowertech a school for people with disabilities. Good Luck on your adventure. I will be watching you.

  19. I want to do what you guys are doing. I have a disability but I can do that too. I go to Empowertech computer school for the disabled. I will send you a message next month.

  20. I think this is so cool and exciting. The idea of humans on Mars in the near future is something I never thought I’d be able to see. Good luck on your mission and keep the updates coming!

  21. I am Alan. I go to Empowertech. HOW WOULD THIS PROJECT BENEFIT LIVING ON MARS? How would this benefit people on earth? Good luck!

    1. Hi Alan: Hopefully, with this project we’ll discover the tools that work best to keep crews happy and healthy during long-duration missions. The only way to know is to try these things out in advance and practice, practice, practice. Cheers!

  22. My name is Sharon Goldin
    I go to empower tech, I’ve been going for 3 years i’m a spceial needs student here learning computer skills. My teacher here told the class about this project.
    Good Luck to you Martians

  23. I just learned about this project and blog, and subscribed immediately! I am in my second year in college, hoping to major somewhere in the realm of astronomy and astrophysics.

    I am so fascinated by projects like this, and have mixed envy and admiration for the participants. For years I worked a job that had an unusual sort of isolation, and I feel as if I could excel in a situation such as yours. I am particularly fascinated by the minutia of the day-to-day living in environments such as this and the ISS. Keep us updated with pictures and stories from the inside!

    Best of luck on sMars, I hope you brought a book!

  24. I’m curious as to whether there is a ‘safe out.’ I’m assuming that no one can actually die in there; in the event of a genuine medical emergency, you can be evacuated. If this is true, do you think that changes the psychological impact of isolation?

    1. People can always die, Shelley, wherever they are. Being the doc on this mission means that I have to make sure that doesn’t happen. I think of myself as being 100% responsible for the lives of these people. I think of help being very far away. That psychological effect is pretty real. To see what I mean, go camping for a week on a barren hillside with no signs of other humans, and see if you feel safe 😉

  25. Awesome! Hope everyone stays safe and doesn’t lose their sanity in such small confinement. I am looking forward to more of your blog postings. Good luck! And have fun!

  26. I am a 6th grader from Ames, Iowa. I am eagerly awaiting your updates! I hope you will post some videos of your life in the dome! Something like a Martian vlog! 🙂 Good luck!

  27. I just found out about this program tonight, which is surprising giving how much i enjoy learning about space and space technology. I will definitely be following along as much as I can with this blog. Maybe I will even check out the others that are on this mission with you. I believe this makes a great experiment and I hope we get wonderful results that end which allow some serious preparation for the real mission to mars. Good luck! have fun!

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